Bird Hunt In The Shadow of Dracula

  Written by Vincent C. Spiotti

   Illustrated by Kelli Shedd

The morning of our departure from New Hampshire, my wife Maria caught me packing a few extra items into my bags. “What are you doing?” she asked as she found me slipping a simple 18th century kit into my bag. “Just thought I would bring an outfit to wear and explore the forests when we visit your grandfather.” Maria responded, “You know, it may be rural but they do wear modern clothes.” I continued packing as I told her, “Well, I just thought if I had a few free moments I would take a look around the countryside”. Maria rolled her eyes as she listened to my plan. “Don’t worry,” I told her, I won’t be alone.” She looked back at me. “I packed an outfit for Gia too!” She smiled at me, “You better keep your daughter safe,” she answered back. “There are plenty of wild animals in those forests,” she finished as she moved on to something else.

We were setting off to Europe to visit my wife’s grandfather, who still resides in a very rural section of Romania in the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains. Maria had told me that the area where her grandfather lives is known for two things: wild boar hunting and one of the largest natural peony filled forests in Europe. In his youth, Maria’s grandfather often hunted these wild animals in the surrounding forests.  However, a boar hunt this trip was not my intent. Scouting around a forest full of natural growing peonies, especially clad in 18th century attire, seemed like something you don’t get to do everyday. The effort of carrying around 18th century outfits for Gia and me during our 3-week trip was well worth the opportunity and excitement of an international adventure.

Most people think of a romantically wild and dangerous Romania, full of wolves, bears and vampires. The Irish born writer Bram Stoker certainly helped create this image within his novel Dracula which combined local legends with actual historical figures from the Romanian past. Most notable of these real life figures was the true life person Vlad, known as Vlad the Impaler.  Born in Transylvania, this controversial 15th century ruler of Wallachia, a region of current day Romania, became the namesake and centerpiece of the fictitious Dracula. While there is little historical relationship between the true man and the myth, Dracula is a name embellished in a fictitious story that has gifted this beautiful country with a recent historic reputation that has blurred the lines between fact and gothic created fiction.

Today this eastern European country continues to be a place of rugged and pastoral scenic beauty coupled with the numerous historical legends and myths. The look and feel of the 18th century is but a few steps from any village or road. It is a place where an imaginative reenactor can effortlessly slip from the present into the past.

The village of Oprisor where we visited Maria’s grandfather did not disappoint. Built prior to communism in a feudal style with the villagers living clustered in a small town surrounded by fields pastures, the village  alive at all hours of the day and night with the work of farmers. Homes are simple, with stone and wood walls lining the streets and defining the borders of each home. Every house is adorned with flowers in the front and gardens and animals in the rear. Utilities and public services are limited. The work in the fields is done by hand and horse.

Livestock, which spent the evenings in town, are herded daily through the early morning streets by the local farmers and shepherds to the fields, only to return at sundown each evening. The sounds of bells on goats, sheep and cows are ever present during these early morning and late evening hours. There are far more horse and ox pulled carts traveling on the local dirt covered streets than there are modern vehicles. Animal manure is unavoidable as you walked the streets. Despite being in the 21st century, the lifestyle remains of a farming community from many centuries ago.

The day of adventure to the peony filled forest finally arrived. Our plan was to start with a family picnic and then I would branch off with Gia and spend several hours on our own wandering the forest. I came out from house dressed in a simple 18th century outfit of linen weskit, shirt, breeches, and work cap along with wool stocking and leather moccasins. I packed a linen haversack with a few items I might need on my journey. I slipped a small bottle of Maria’s grandfather’s homemade brandy into my haversack and then slung the bag over my shoulder.

Maria’s initial look at our outfits was the normal reaction to 18th century garb. Gia, who wore a bright blue gown, being an imaginative 6 year old, would just as well wear her 18th century outfits all the time. She has always maintained a drawer of various costumes and outfits. A little girl in a dress seems quite normal.

However, Maria’s grandfather stared at me with confusion. He was confused and had no idea why I was dressed like a shepherd. After a short discussion, while I think he understood that raising sheep was not my profession, I don’t think he ever understood historical reenacting. Being a man of nearly 100 years who has lived through two World Wars and the rise and fall of communism, it was going to take quite an explanation to make a dent in his world of reason and practicality. This is a man who still lives with no running water, heats his small winter quarters with wood, uses an outhouse located in his back garden year round, grows his own vegetables, manages his own small vineyard, and makes and sells his own wine and brandy. It would be too difficult to explain my passion for historical reenacting to someone who in his own way is still living much it. I left any explanations to Maria as we all headed off to the peony forest.

Peonies that we see in ornamental gardens, planters and vases are beautiful enough. The stand of forest that we visited had to be several thousand acres, all surrounded by farmland of crops and animal pastures. The forest itself was heavily canopied with old growth trees. A series of dirt roads, paths and game trails zigzagged throughout the trees. What was most striking was how the entire floor of the darkened forest was matted in a beautiful crimson waist high carpet of peonies. Anywhere you looked was more beautiful than the last as these flowers appeared to be anywhere and everywhere. It was an enchanted forest of shadows with vivid red and green colors which were accented by bright rays of light penetrating the roof of the thick leaves on the trees.

After a picnic lunch of cold meats, cheeses, fresh bread and sweet biscuits with Julianna, our youngest daughter, Maria and her grandfather, Gia and I set out for a few hours to scout the peony forest. I decided that in this time, we could get a good look at all four sides of the forest along with a few peeks of the deeper areas within. I filled my haversack with a few extra snacks from our picnic. A bottle of water, a loaf of fresh hard-crusted bread, and several sweet biscuits joined the small bottle of brandy already in my haversack. Packed and ready, Gia and I joined hands and slipped down a side path and quickly disappeared into the forest and emerged into our imaginative 18th century.

The two things you notice as you enter into a foreign forest are how the landscape both looks and sound different. The mixture of trees and vegetation is nothing like New England. Gone are the pine trees, birch and maple trees, replaced by local species of elm, walnut and oak. As we made our way quickly down a path into the heart of the wilderness, you noticed that the sound of the forest was different. The familiar cries and calls of birds that we find comfort in each day are silent. Instead we hear a strange blend of melodies chirped by unseen birds that fly in and about the trees. I think this unfamiliar sound of the woods is what makes the afternoon scout most mysterious and adventurous.

As we continue down a narrowing pathway surrounded by rivers of peonies and deep green underbrush, we both strain our necks and eyes as we continue to scan the tree cover for a glimpse of the birds that we continue to hear. However, while we continue to hear a symphony played by unknown and unseen birds, we see nothing. They all seem to be in and above the thick canopy overhead.

Suddenly there was a sound that was familiar to us. Gia heard it first but thought it was something different. “Daddy, I hear a cuckoo clock,” she exclaimed as she spun around in circles trying to find the source of the noise. We both stopped and stood there in silence, hearing only the rush of wind through the trees. Then we both heard it, the distinct repetitive cry of the cuckoo bird coming from out and above us. “I heard it that time,” I whispered out loud with excitement, my eyes trying to locate the source of the cry. “That’s no clock, that’s a real cuckoo bird,” I whispered to Gia who looked up at me with her big eyes wider than ever with amazement. “Please, please let’s find him,” she begged as we both kept looking around. I was just as excited and curious as Gia to see this bird. Who could have ever imagined this? Our hunt for the cuckoo bird was about to begin.

The afternoon game of hide and seek with the cuckoo bird began with us first simply locating the cuckoo bird. We walked down the path in the general direction where we first heard the bird. Gia in her bright blue gown and shoes moved in an exaggerated slink as we carefully made our way down the path towards the bird. The cry of the cuckoo was getting louder as we neared his location. While we could not see the bird, we determined that the sound was coming from a high up branch in a tree perched out above a small grassy clearing in the forest.

As we neared the location, our hearts raced with excitement. It seemed too easy to stalk the bird so quickly. We were right. As we closed the distance, the sound stopped. The cuckoo bird sensed us and surely was watching our movement as we came closer. Suddenly, there was a noise in the tree we suspected. With a great whoosh of flapping wings, we heard the cuckoo bird fly off. We caught a glimpse of the bird in flight, going further away from us and deeper into the forest. I looked down as Gia looked up, not knowing what to do. I simply exclaimed “Follow that bird!” as we both took off running, Gia reaching up to grab my hand as were moving quickly down the trail, looking up the entire time trying to follow the bird. My moccasins felt light as air as we dashed along the mostly even ground. The haversack slung across my shoulders was swinging, nearly knocking Gia over as our chase continued. We were getting closer.

We stopped and crouched down behind a small bush as we peered up into the trees. “Where did the cuckoo bird go?” Gia asked, her eyes straining into the distance. I pointed with my hand, fingers together and hand open, towards a large walnut tree at the end of the clearing. “I think he’s right there,” I whispered as I motioned with my hand upward, pointing to where I thought I saw the bird land. We hid behind the bush for a few minutes. There was no sound from the bird. We were growing anxious as we began to worry that we had lost the bird. Gia climbed onto my lap as I squatted in place, eyes scanning the above tree line. We had to find that bird.

Suddenly the cuckoo bird let out another series of cries. Much to our surprise he was not in the tree in front of us. The bird was directly above us. Startled, I rocked backward and fell over. Gia tumbled off me onto the ground, rolled quickly rolled and stood up, finger pointing in the air. “There he is,” she cried as she pointed skyward. We saw the now recognizable black body of the cuckoo bird fly away from us, his long flapping wings bringing him higher, almost above the trees as he neared the edge of the forest. We both stood up and followed. Our hunt continued on like this for over and hour. An illusive game of hide and seek with the cuckoo bird continued. The call of the bird would draw us in and then the bird would fly on with Gia and I in close pursuit.

We continued towards the edge of the forest, Gia in her blue gown and me in my shirt, waistcoat and breeches. It was warm and the linen work cap on my head was rolled up above my ears, the top flopped over to one side. As we moved forward, I enjoyed the feel of the trail on the bottom of my moccasins. The ground here was smooth and soft, unlike the hard and rocky paths I was generally traveled in my native New England. In all the excitement of the hunt, I had failed to look around and realize how enjoyable and comfortable this forest was to explore. Lush with vegetation, colorful with flowers, and plenty of large trees were full overhead to shade you from the strong sun. With lovely soft ground to traverse, it was a pleasure to visit. What a great place to continue the hunt.

As we neared the forest edge, there was movement. This time, it was large and at the edge of the tree line. What we saw move was much larger than a bird and it was on the ground. I then took note of several shapes moving along the edge of the forest. I grabbed Gia by the hand and quickly moved her behind me. I then had her climb into the crook of a tree where she now sat at a safe distance above the ground.

The stories of wild boars charging at hunters immediately came into my mind. I reached down for a stick or log, anything to possibly use to protect us. There was nothing. I had no knife, no axe or firelock. We were defenseless. I quickly forced myself to think of what to do. This was a situation that was new to me. I had never faced off with a wild boar before. I decided I had to get a better look at what was in front of us.  I grabbed a branch from the tree Gia was nestled in, and pulled myself up higher onto my toes and craned my neck up to see what was at the edge of the pasture.  After a quick glance, my fears quickly subsided. It was certainly not the cuckoo bird and it was definitely not a wild boar. To my surprise, it was a flock of sheep grazing in the field at the edge of the forest.

Gia jumped down from the tree and we moved up to the edge of the field. Running forward, she burst out into the pasture moving closer towards the sheep. Gia had seen many of these animals during our trip to Romania and had gained a real love of this gentle beast. Beyond the sheep, however, my eyes were met by the curious gaze of another. It was the shepherd who was tending his flock. Dressed in shepherd attire with a gray wool hat on his head and haversack similar to mine slung to his side, he stood there and gave me a curious look.  He cocked his head to one side; he carefully examined my outfit as we stood facing for nearly one minute. At this distance, he easily fit into our imagined 18th century adventure.

Gia flashed between us as she moved closer to the sheep, none of which looked up at either of us as they continued to keep their heads down and feed on the fresh grass in the field. Just then, we broke eye contact as the shepherd looked over my shoulder and up towards the top of the trees behind me. I could see the flash of bright white smile slowly extend across the well-tanned and weathered skin of his face. Right then, over my shoulder, I heard the cries of the cuckoo bird. The bird was still near us, seemingly taunting us to continue the chase. I spun back towards the forest and the bird. Gia looked back as well. I then turned back towards the shepherd, who pointed towards the bird and smiled. While our outfits still perhaps confused him, it now appeared obvious to him what we were doing. The shepherd pulled off his wool cap and waved his hand towards us with a big grin as he continued to point towards the bird in flight. I returned the salute with my linen cap as Gia sprinted towards me. Perhaps tonight by the family fire while enjoying a glass of homemade wine, this shepherd would tell a story to his family about how a man and a girl from the past emerged and then quickly disappeared into the forest.

I grabbed Gia’s hand as she passed me and together we sprinted back into the trees, picked up a path that headed back towards where we began our adventure. We followed that cuckoo bird as we ran down the path surrounded by even more of the beautiful red peonies. After almost two hours of chasing, we were more determined than ever to get a close look at our quarry. We quickened our pace. Gia cried out towards the bird as we ran, “We’re going to get you!”

We were close now as we stopped and listened. Through the low mummer of the wind blowing through the trees we could hear the repetitive cry of the cuckoo bird now only about 100 meters in front of us. We slowly approached, guided by the distinct cry we heard several times each minute. We were closer than ever. Slowly, with each step of my moccasins, the cry became louder. We cut the distance in half. Each step was even more careful, each foot placement as quiet as possible. Gia’s grip tightened on my hand as we moved forward. I could hear her breathing louder as she grew more anxious and excited.

In a tree just in front of us I could make out the back of the bird. Just 10 meters up above us, I could see a long feathered tail sticking out from a tangle of branches. The cry was piercing, louder than ever. The bird was facing away from us and seemed not to be aware, maybe not concerned with our presence. We carefully walked to within meters of the tree, walked past and then circled back and around. The cuckoo bird was directly above us.

“I can’t see him,” Gia quietly whispered as we moved slowly. I dropped my haversack and grabbed her, lifting her up to a high perch above on my shoulders. I grabbed her right hand and pointed up directly at the bird. “I see him, I see him” she whispered in my ear with the excitement that could only come from a child. The cuckoo bird continued to sound off with the distinctive cry as we enjoyed the sight of a long tailed bird, dark in color, with what appeared to be strong looking legs and feet. The cuckoo bird was so close it felt as if we could reach up and touch him. Gia giggled and squeaked as we both continued to watch the bird. “I think he likes us,” Gia said softly between the cries from the tree. The sounds continued as we carefully walked around the tree, searching for the best place to observe what we had discovered.

Our careful circular inspection around the tree that held the cuckoo bird lasted for neatly 10 minutes. A dark colored somewhat plain bird of medium size, the most distinct feature was the loud repetitive cry. Gia’s wonderment and amazement never subsided as we both continued to gaze up into the branches. We came here to enjoy the beauty of flowers and spent the day chasing a bird of legend. I never thought that today’s adventure would lead us to this discovery, to this adventure.

As we spend the next few moments enjoying our observations of the cuckoo bird, I realized I had lost track with time. More than just the exact time but what time period we were now in. We were so deep into the forest and consumed with our quest that we easily believed whatever we imagined. We chose the 18th century because it is our interest. There was no sign or thought that convinced us otherwise. We were fully emerged in our afternoon exploration.

Then without warning in a big rush and with one final cry, the cuckoo bird flew away. Perhaps something about us bothered him. Maybe he was just simply bored of the game. Whatever the reason, the bird flew off and ended our day. “Let’s chase him more!” Gia cried as I dropped her down from my shoulders. After bending backwards and stretching my sore back, I then reached down and I grabbed my haversack. “That’s about it for today” I told Gia as I slung my haversack back over my shoulder. “Let’s head back and find Mama, Julie and Tatia,” I finished. Suddenly, time started again and we fast forwarded back into the current century. It was time to go home.

As we made our way up the tree lined road beneath the canopy of foliage, still completely surrounded by bright red peonies, we heard a sound that was far more familiar. Back now where we started our day, we found Julianna and Maria playing a game of hide and seek, darting around and chasing each other through the bright red flowers. Maria’s grandfather was leaning against a tree sleeping. We were back with the others. Our adventure had ended.

When most people visit Romania, they expect to be chased by beasts of myths and legends. The visions of vampires, wolfs and other creatures are always at the forefront of people’s imagination when they think of this romantic country. For this afternoon, our passion for reenacting and the 18th century brought us to a foreign land to explore a beautiful forest full of bright red flowers. What we discovered was an illusive bird that took us on a winding chase through a beautiful magical forest where we became engulfed in our 18th century adventure. On this afternoon, we were truly lost in our imagination as we did the chasing, enjoying a bird hunt at the base of the Carpathian Mountains in the shadow of the legend of Dracula.